Air France pilots said they’re concerned Paris would lose out to Amsterdam if KLM unit chief Pieter Elbers becomes the first Dutch head of Air France-KLM, throwing up another obstacle in the search for a permanent CEO.
Elbers, 48, has emerged as a serious contender to take the top job at the parent company after the French government, its biggest shareholder, signaled its willingness to hire someone who isn’t French.
A longtime KLM executive, Elbers has led the smaller, more profitable Dutch arm since 2014.
By many measures, Elbers is a solid candidate. He’s even earned praise from Willie Walsh, head of British Airways IAG SA, who called his Dutch rival one of the best leaders in the industry.
Yet the situation is messy. Air France-KLM has been run by a Frenchman since the companies combined, the pay is far below peers, and investors vetoed the last frontrunner.
Union troubles drove the last two CEOs from their jobs, demonstrating their sizable clout.
“It would be a big issue” if Elbers were chosen, Philippe Evain, head of Air France’s main pilots union, said on Thursday.
He said flights were shifted to Amsterdam from Paris after the companies merged in 2004 to take advantage of lower airport fees and taxes in the Netherlands. “We don’t see the current imbalance between Air France and KLM going away if a Dutchman is appointed at the helm.”
Strikes on Pause
The new boss will have to tackle a bitter labor dispute at Air France, which resulted in the resignation of former CEO Jean-Marc Janaillac two months ago.
Ten unions — representing not only pilots, but also cabin crew and ground personnel — have staged 15 days of strikes since February to demand a pay rise. They have put further walkouts on hold to give the company time to find a new boss.
The strikes could potentially resume if talks over salaries don’t restart, Evain said.
Air France-KLM interim non-executive chairman Anne-Marie Couderc told unions in June that if the company could not pick a CEO by mid-July, she would seek a new mandate from the board, hinting that she could be allowed to discuss a pay rise, Evain said.
The company had come close to finding a new CEO in Philippe Capron, who heads finance at the water utility company Veolia Environnement SA.
His candidacy was pulled in the face of opposition including from unions. It’s now unclear when the new chief will be appointed. The French economy minister Bruno Le Maire said a decision in July would be “ideal.”
Last month, unions had felt they were getting closer to an agreement on pay with Air France management, which floated a possible 3.65 percent raise, according to Evain and other union representatives.
Air France-KLM’s future CEO, Evain said, should also be tasked with lobbying to lower taxes and airport usage fees that are weighing on the French airline. Air France current chief Franck Terner has also made a point that the carrier suffers from high fees compared to its Dutch sibling and rival carriers.
A spokeswoman for Air France-KLM said Air France’s business is growing faster than KLM’s during this year’s summer months. She declined to comment on other topics.
–With assistance from Matthew Campbell.
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